The Writing Life: Plotter or Pantser

By Kristi Belcamino

On the heels of my debut mystery, with book two coming out in a few weeks, now I’m starting to plot book three in my Gabriella Giovanni series.

Because I’m not a “pantser” which I think comes from the term “by the seat of your pants” a free-flowing, free-spirited, go-with-the-flow write-as-it-comes-to-you writer.

Nope. I plot.

I like to have a rough sketch or outline of what my novel is going to look like before I actually sit down to write. I haven’t always been this way. When I wrote Blessed are the Dead, I sat down with a vague idea of the story and let it carry me way. Which sounds wonderful and artsy and more creative, but in reality it was a terrific waste of time.

I got the words on paper and had a first draft of my novel in three months. But then I spent a year revising, polishing, shaping and molding it into the book that is in your hands today. Because when I first wrote it, I didn’t know squat about three-act structure.

And I got away with not knowing it for quite a long time. I was even able to get an agent without knowing it. But when she went to sell the book people came soooo close to buying it, but said there was “something” that wasn’t quite right about it. One editor said she went to bed thinking “I HAVE to buy this book” but woke up saying she wouldn’t be able to get others on board because it had a FATAL flaw. Holy, cats. What FATAL flaw? It read like two different books. Say what? Then another editor said something similar.

I tore apart my novel and began studying every book I could get my hands on that talked about structure, because the chief complaint about my book had something to do with its structure. Hmmm. As I read all these books, something became very clear to me—like a kick to the teeth—My book was NOT following standard three-act structure—the same structure that every successful book and movie on the planet follows.

So I revised once again. This time, I had several books to guide me, James Scott Bell’s PLOT & STRUCTURE and STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks. Then, we resubmitted to the editors and this time—BOOK DEAL. Two-book deal with HarperCollins!!!! 

When I sat down to write book two, you better believe I used three-act structure in my plotting. And for book three, yeppers!

I love using the Index Card method that Alexandra Sokoloff talks about in SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS. 

Do you plot or are you a pantser? If you plot, what do you use? Please share. I’m a nerd about writing process and love to hear how authors do it.

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Author: kristibelcamino

Kristi Belcamino is a crime writer, photographer, and artist who also bakes a tasty biscotti. Her debut mystery, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, will be published in June 2014. www.kristibelcamino.com

8 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Plotter or Pantser”

  1. I’m definitely not a plotter. When I wrote EVERY OTHER MONDAY, I had a very detailed overview, which I used to generate scenes and an outline. Yep, hit all the major points, the three acts, all of it. The manuscript was thin and lifeless. First revision, I set about filling things out, but still sticking to that outline. Still a little heavy.

    The lightbulb came on when I talked to another writer. “At every point where something *should* happen, as ‘but what if it doesn’t?'” Genius. So I threw the outline out. Ripped apart the entire middle and just kept asking “what would happen? what if it didn’t?” I love the finished product so much more.

    I’ve also become a big fan of what James Scott Bell calls “writing from the middle.” Start with the meat of the story, that second act, then write to the beginning and the end. It can mean tossing scenes out as I stitch together the pieces, but it works for me.

    I do have PLOT AND STRUCTURE, though. Love that book – one of my faves.

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  2. This is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I’ve been fighting against plotting for years, but my WIP has been stuck for a loooong time–and I think it’s because I didn’t plot it out. Plotting always terrified me, because I felt it was too rigid. Finally the light bulb went off that I can always CHANGE the plotting if I need to do so (duh!), and now I’m reading everything I can on plotting and the three act structure. Thanks for the book tips!

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  3. I had a similar experience with getting published the first time. Many rejections on my first novel. Then I read McKee’s Story and boom. In my case it was a one book contract, but they would have picked up my second until the press was sold and the new CEO didn’t want to do fiction any more. Right now I’m having to be a pantser with my current WIP, but some projects are different than others. It’s important to be flexible. But for the most part, I’m a plotter.

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  4. I’m a pantser, and I love being a pantser because I love discovering the story as I go. BUT I sometimes I get stuck and realize it’s because I zigged when I should have zagged. I have been learning about structure and pacing, so hopefully those lessons are filtering through while I write.

    Mary–I love the advice your author friend gave you: “what should happen next? What if it didn’t?” Perfect question.

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  5. I love this story, Kristi…really loved hearing about the process. Kudos to you for mastering the fine art of plotting! 🙂

    Here’s a question: if folks hadn’t identified those kinds of narrative structures (the three- and five-act recognitions go WAY back), would we have continued to plot in those ways….or would there be more flexibility? Do they serve some other kind of cultural or psychological purpose or are they just what we are used to in our storytelling and therefore expect it? (Not that I expect anyone to provide an answer here…I’ve just always thought about it and wonder what you think.)

    For what it’s worth, one time, I tried to plot a mystery using the hero’s journey structure, with all of the various elements. I was throwing all kinds of weird and ultimately absurd scenes in there to hit all of the elements. Didn’t work out. Oh well.

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  6. I’m a wannabe plotter. I will have an end in mind and a couple of turning points, but when I try to plot out how to get from point A to point B, the words stop flowing. I have to give myself permission to take some unplanned side trips before the words flow again. This makes more work down the road, sigh!

    As for storytelling, I think our narrative structure works for us because the oral storytellers from the beginning of time knew what holds audience interest.

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  7. Cynthia, I tried the same thing with the hero’s journey. Didn’t work for me either! I like to think that reading a lot helps me pick up some of this through osmosis. (Though I did start reading PLOT AND STRUCTRE today, based on the high recommendation of the Mysteristas.)

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  8. Oh what a great topic! I am a plotster. I start with an idea, I flesh it out, I do a gross outline, then I write. I have found that I need to outline the highlights of every chapter but that’s ok for me because whatever happens in the prior chapter grows to the next chapter. I tried doing a hard and fast outline, couldn’t enjoy the writing process, so now – I plot and pants. So much more fun. Love the ‘what if’ question.

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